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Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ a shocking true story of racism past and present

“BlacKkKlansman” is a period piece, but one that is animated by the tumultuous American present.

Adam Driver, left, and John David Washington star

Adam Driver, left, and John David Washington star in Spike Lee's latest film, "BlacKkKlansman," based on a true story. Photo Credit: David Lee

‘BlacKkKlansman’

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Rated R

Spike Lee makes movies that no one else could make and when he’s at his best they are possessed with the sort of intense vitality that seizes you with the conviction that what you’re watching truly, inexorably matters.

From his masterpiece “Do the Right Thing,” to a cross-section of essential movies ranging from “The 25th Hour” to “Malcolm X,” the filmmaker occupies an exclusive terrain where impassioned sociopolitical commentary comfortably coexists with bold cinematic flourishes and refined storytelling skills.

“BlacKkKlansman” finds Lee in that vintage mode; it’s a period piece, infused with anger and sarcasm, that tells a stranger-than-fiction true story, but one that is animated by the tumultuous American present.

In Colorado Springs, circa 1978, black detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, who shares his father Denzel’s acting gene) hatches an extraordinary plan: he will infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by charming them over the phone and having fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), play him in person.

All things considered, this goes better than expected, especially when Stallworth is nominated to head the chapter. Throughout, Lee relishes the opportunity to mock the bad guys (including Topher Grace as a fairly clueless David Duke) without ever losing sight of their genuinely threatening, evil nature.

The picture is funny and self-referential at times (when Isiah Whitlock Jr. turns up in large part, it seems, to offer up his “The Wire” catchphrase, the movie skews toward parody) and sad and terrifying at others.

The movie sustains its power thanks to the ease with which the filmmaker combines into a coherent whole the entertaining mechanics of the plot and digressions such as an impassioned Kwame Ture speech (Corey Hawkins is riveting in his one scene as the man born Stokely Carmichael), intercut with the isolated heads against a dark background of the audience members taking in his message of celebrating their blackness.

It’s a stark, insistent demand from Lee to his audience that we take notice of what he is doing and saying here. It’s a filmmaker telling you to listen and to think about what you’re seeing, to be shaken out of placid complicity and to consider the ways in which the divisions and horrors being depicted in “BlackKkKlansman” remain ever-present in an America that’s a long way from a “post-racial” society.

Like “Do the Right Thing,” this movie is really about a nation tremendously, perpetually unsettled, in which the sins and prejudices of the past very much remain alive in Donald Trump’s America.

There’s a famous sequence in Lee’s “School Daze,” wherein Laurence Fishburne’s Dap repeatedly screams, “Wake up!” That’s the defining message of Lee’s career and it’s the whole story here.

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